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Past Progressive Tense | Uses, Examples & Exercises

Verbs updated on  February 5, 2024 4 min read
The past progressive tense (aka the past continuous) is a past tense verb form used for actions that were ongoing in the past.

To form the past progressive, follow the subject with the simple past tense of the auxiliary verb “be” (i.e., “was/were”) and the present participle (the -ing form) of the main verb (e.g., “she was running,” “they were running”).

Past progressive tense forms

Affirmative

Negative

Interrogative

I was walking

I wasn’t walking

Was I walking?

You were walking (singular)

You weren’t walking (singular)

Were you walking? (singular)

He/she/it was walking

He/she/it wasn’t walking

Was he/she/it walking?

We were walking

We weren’t walking

Were we walking?

You were walking (plural)

You weren’t walking (plural)

Were you walking? (plural)

They were walking

They weren’t walking

Were they walking?

How to use the past progressive tense  

The past progressive tense (aka the past continuous) is used for actions that were ongoing in the past. It often describes past actions that were happening at the same time, a past action that was happening when another action occurred, or actions that were habitual.

To form the past progressive, follow the subject with “was” or “were” and the present participle (the -ing form) of the main verb (e.g., “she was sleeping,” “they were sleeping”).

Examples: The past continuous tense
I was watching TV when someone knocked on the door.
Anika was studying medicine while Freya was training to be an electrician.
Hafsah and Tasmin were always arguing.

Note
In sentences using the past progressive tense, “while” usually indicates that multiple actions were taking place simultaneously and “when” indicates that an action was already taking place when another action occurred (sometimes interrupting the first action).

“While” can be used before or after the first action, and both actions are often in the past progressive tense. For example, “I was running while he was jogging” or “while I was running, he was jogging.”

“When” can be used before or after the past progressive action, and the interrupting action should be in the past simple tense. For example, “I was running when I saw a strange light in the sky” or “when I was running, I saw a strange light in the sky.”

Past simple vs past continuous

We use the simple past tense (aka the past simple) to describe actions and events that happened in the past.

We use the past continuous to describe actions that were ongoing in the past. The simple past and past continuous are sometimes interchangeable. For example, “we studied all night last night” and “we were studying all night last night” are both acceptable.

The past continuous often emphasizes the time something took, describes past actions that were happening simultaneously, or describes an ongoing past action that was interrupted by another past action.

Examples: Past simple vs past continuous
My phone broke last week.
I was sightseeing in London when my phone broke.
He was drinking coffee while I was reading the newspaper.

In sentences using “when” and a subordinate clause containing another action, the order of the actions is determined by whether the simple past tense or the past continuous tense is used.

For example, “I was eating dinner when my phone rang” means that the speaker was already eating dinner at the time the phone rang (i.e., the phone call interrupted the dinner). However, “I ate dinner when my phone rang” means the speaker did not start eating dinner until the phone rang.

Note
Stative verbs (e.g., “want,” “have,” “like”) usually can’t be used in the past continuous tense; use the simple past or the past perfect tense instead.

I was believing in the tooth fairy.
I believed in the tooth fairy.
I had believed in the tooth fairy for many years.

How to form negatives

To form a negative past progressive statement, place the adverb “not” after “was/were” (or use the contraction “wasn’t” or “weren’t”).

Examples: Negative past continuous sentences
The students weren’t dancing.
I wasn’t listening when the teacher asked me for an answer.

How to form questions

To ask a yes or no question about something that was happening in the past, use the present participle of the main verb and place “was” or “were” before the subject.

Examples: Past continuous tense questions
Was he shopping when you saw him?
Were they helping you?

You can add an interrogative pronoun or an interrogative adverb (e.g., “why,” “who,” “how”) before “was” or “were” to ask more detailed questions about something that was happening in the past.

Examples: Past continuous tense questions
What was he buying when you saw him?
Why were they helping you?

How to form the passive voice

In the active voice, the subject performs the action described by the verb (e.g., “I walked the dogs”). In the passive voice, the subject receives the action (e.g., “the dogs were walked”).

To form a past continuous sentence in the passive voice, follow the subject with “was/were” and “being” and use the past participle of the main verb.

Examples: Past continuous passive constructions
The building was being demolished due to safety concerns.
Dwayne was being arrested when his mother arrived.
Corsets were still being worn in the early twentieth century.

Past progressive exercises

Test your understanding of past progressive verbs with these exercise questions.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Verbs

Nouns

Rhetoric

Present participle

Concrete noun

Oxymoron

Linking verb

Common noun

Double entendre

Participial phrase

Abstract noun

Sibilance

Simple present tense

Proper noun

Cliché

Modal verb

Appositive

Paraprosdokian


Frequently asked questions about the past progressive

What is the difference between was and were?

“Was” and “were” are both simple past tense forms of the stative verb “be.” The correct form to use depends on the subject.

“Was” is used for most singular subjects, including first person and third person (e.g., “I was,” “she was”).

“Were” is used for plural subjects (e.g., “we were,” “they were”), but it’s also used for the second person regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural (e.g., “you were”).

Whether “was” or “were” is correct can also depend on whether you’re using the subjunctive mood or indicative mood. The subjunctive mood is used to express wishes, hypotheticals, and suggestions (e.g., “if I were you, I would say something”).

What are some examples of the past continuous tense?

The past continuous tense (aka the past progressive) is a past tense verb form used to describe actions that were ongoing in the past. It often describes actions that were happening at the same time or that were happening when something else occurred.

Here are some examples of the past continuous tense:

  • I was surfing when my surfboard broke.
  • She was smiling as I was telling the story.
  • We were singing karaoke while our friends were dancing.
  • Jemal was always studying on Friday nights.

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Sophie Shores

Sophie has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Publishing, and a passion for great writing. She’s taught English overseas and has experience editing both business and academic writing.

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